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Rationale behind caribou breeding program outlined at public session

Parks Canada panelists at a public session on caribou recovery held at the Forest Park Inn on June 27. | J.Stockfish photo

Jason Stockfish | advertising@fitzhugh.ca

Parks Canada hosted an in-person public session on June 27 to discuss a proposal to rebuild declining caribou herds by way of a conservation breeding program.

The intention of the session was to allow the public to hear details about the proposal from Parks Canada staff and to provide an opportunity to pose questions or concerns to staff involved in implementing the proposed initiative should it go forward.

While the proposal has not yet been approved, the federal government’s 2021 budget made over $24 million available for caribou conservation in Jasper National Park.

Mark Young, Indigenous relations manager with Parks Canada, moderated the discussion from a panel of experts.

Indigenous partners and knowledge holders agree with archaeological evidence that humans and caribou co-existed for thousands of years.

Dave Argument, resource conservation manager, explained that the caribou ranged in and out of the park and the different herds had interconnections and were not separated and isolated as they are today.

Written records from park wardens show that up to 700 caribou existed in Jasper National Park until the 1970s, but in the last 50 years, their numbers have dwindled drastically.

There are a few key reasons for the severe drop in caribou populations.

Most significantly, Parks Canada reintroduced elk to the area in the 1920s, thinking that tourists would prefer to see elk rather than their predators, Argument noted.

Further, wolves were shot on sight, and as a result, the elk population grew into the thousands.

In 1959, Parks Canada changed their policy and stopped killing the predators and wolf numbers exploded in response. 

The major problem was that the wolves also took down the caribou as well.

Wildlife biologist Layla Neufeld said this is what is referred to as apparent competition: when the number of one prey species increases drastically, the predator numbers increase as a result and a prey species that is not large (in this case the caribou) suffers the consequences. 

“The caribou numbers nosedived from there,” Argument said.

Once the creature’s numbers diminished, disease, human intervention and avalanches had a disproportionate impact on herd survival and their numbers continued to decline to the point of extirpation, meaning local extinction.

Since 2000, Parks Canada’s management has taken actions to try and turn the decline around, such as reducing the public’s early winter access to areas in the high elevation to prevent humans from leaving a hard packed trail for the wolves to easily travel to areas where the caribou gather.

But their efforts came too late and now a conservation breeding program seems to be the only viable option to save the local caribou herds.

South of Highway 16, there are three herd ranges in Jasper National Park: Tonquin, Brazeau and Maligne.

The last caribou spotted in the Maligne herd was in 2018.

The number of females remaining in the Tonquin herd are 11 or fewer, and there are three or less females remaining in the Brazeau.

At such small numbers, the herds can’t produce enough female calves or calves in general to grow their herds, and the current situation is that the Brazeau and Tonquin herds are facing imminent extirpation.

“With the Brazeau and Tonquin herds at a quasi-extinction level, we are now in a very difficult situation,” said Jean Francois Bisaillon, program manager.

“Our vision is to recover the herds in Jasper so they become plentiful, healthy and resilient over time.”

The largest threat is that there aren’t enough females, which is why Parks Canada is proposing the caribou penning conservation program.

Bisaillon said the purpose of the proposed program is only a tool to create herds that no longer need human intervention to sustain their numbers.

The basis of the project is to take the remaining caribou from the Brazeau herd, a few from the Tonquin and a few others from a regional herd and breed them in captivity, releasing the young each year.

Argument explained that the proposal is to focus on the Tonquin, because the Brazeau population is almost entirely extinct, so bringing them into the Tonquin herd allows Parks Canada to preserve their genes. 

“In the future, if we’re successful, we can get to a point where we can rebuild (the Brazeau herd) but at this point the risk is so high to lose them entirely,” he said.

Neufeld added that identifying these “source animals” is step one.

“Whatever we do, it’s of the utmost importance that herds are not affected by the removal of source animals,” she said.

Parks could use a few animals from different herds to ensure impacts are minimized with the option of returning them to the source herds after breeding.

“There are a number of regional herds that are genetically suitable to the creation of a breeding herd (that is) close genetically to the Jasper animals,” Neufeld said.

The proposal is to have 30-40 females in captivity with the hope that they will have 28-36 calves each year, and if all goes well, half of those will be females available for release.

The breeding facility will be located about 30 kilometres from Jasper, just past the Geraldine fire road.

The location was chosen as the area is relatively quiet, has low human disturbance, is near to existing caribou habitat and is close to where Parks intends to release the animals in the Tonquin Valley.

The location is also away from domestic livestock that can carry disease.

In total, the facility will be about 65 acres in size, and at least four staff members will be onsite monitoring and caring for the animals on a daily basis.

The goal is to start with the Tonquin herd, with an aim of around 200 animals by 2030.

“Imagine for a moment, hundreds of caribou while you’re hiking and travelling in the park,” Bisaillon said.

“Imagine yourself being able to experience these beautiful animals.” 

Quoting a colleague, Bisaillon posed a question. 

“If not in Jasper, then where? And if not now, then when?”

Edit: The story was updated to read “apparent competition” rather than “parent competition.” A typo has also been fixed in the headline.

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